Authors: Aaron Crocco
HIGH PRAISE FOR AARON CROCCO & HIS STORIES
The first in a 6-book novelette series showcasing the end of the world.
"If you enjoy Science Fiction tales where the end of the world as we know it is looming around the bend, then As Darkness Ends is a story for you." -Ruled By Books
"…it was enjoyable and the ending was pretty cool." -Far From Reality
"…the book grabs you from the first sentence." -Esquire Tech
What happens when you know your fate?
“…a rollicking good ride” -Karen Harding
“For all that it's a short story, there was a remarkable amount of world building crammed in.” -Eoghann Irving
Books by Aaron Crocco
by Aaron Crocco
It was supposed to be just another cargo run, but for Ken Mallory and the three-person crew of the Raven, an anomaly in deep space changes everything. An unexplained turbulence shakes the small ship like never before, allowing a deadly virus aboard. One by one the infected crew is thrown back in time to relive a near-death experience, only this time death may be closer than they remember.
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Everything was cold. Each console, every button, all of it. If he looked close enough at the plastic buttons used to engage each of the ship's systems, he could swear frost was starting to form. Ken Mallory reclined back in the captain's chair, trying to catch even a few minutes of sleep under his fleece blanket. The chair wasn't his, but given that he was the only person awake, he was in charge.
Not that there was much to be in charge of. The three member crew of the Raven had the glorious responsibility of overseeing its current cargo: energy coils for Faster Than Light drives. It wasn't the most interesting haul, but FTL coils were in high demand since ships burned through them so quick. Ken mind drifted back to sleep when a console let out a soft repeating beep.
He groaned and sat forward to clear the message. It was 02:00 and the hourly log needed an entry. Ken cleared his throat and keyed the console.
"Routine entry, Ken Mallory. May 5, 2405, 02:00. Ship's status mirrors previous updates. No changes since leaving Bridger two weeks ago. ETA to Cogan remains at 53-days."
The system beeped, sending an echo bouncing off the walls of the small bridge, acknowledging the recording as a permanent entry into the ship's log. Ken readjusted in the seat, rolling his eyes that Captain Hubbard required updates in such short intervals. It wasn't like the cargo was going to jettison itself. Ken didn't even bother checking the ship's systems before making the entries. If the Raven had a real problem, it would've alerted him. Besides, if a situation arose, they wouldn't drop everything to make a log into the ship's computer.
Log annoyance aside, Ken hated the cold even more. He'd broached the topic before with Hubbard, but the captain was too damn tight with the pursestrings to add a self-powered Comfort System to the ship. Instead of ponying up the 1,500 qit, Captain Hubbard left the on-board climate system practically off in order to save energy. Ken knew doing so cost less to recharge the Raven when docked, but the cold sucked.
Ken cozied up under the brown blanket and began fading. His body jolted awake as more alert beeps rang out. Had he fallen asleep so quick? It didn't feel like an hour had passed. He glanced at the clock: 02:17. Ken stood, wrapped the blanket around him and shuffled toward the chirping console.
"What the hell?"
The display indicated an obstacle ahead. Ken walked up to the viewport and frowned. He gazed into the infinite darkness of deep space and saw nothing. He leaned closer, feeling the chilled armored glass pull the warmth off his cheeks. Ken peered down the far edges of the viewport and saw nothing on either side of the ship. No debris, no ships, no asteroids.
Three taps on the console cleared the false alarm, sending Ken back to the captain's chair. He mumbled on the way back, flexing the cold out of his fingers. With the bridge kept at thirty degrees, Ken bet the chair was already freezing again.
As he approached the seat the floor began vibrating, throwing his balance off. Ken tumbled down as the deck tilted out from under him, hands burning as his palms scraped the floor’s rough metal grating. The rumble intensified as it swept through the bridge, shaking it like a child's plaything. The few items not tied down slid off the consoles and clattered to the ground. Ken's heart raced as he grasped wildly for anything to hold on to as the Raven tumbled through space.
Then it stopped.
The deafening rumble ceased, and the shaking was gone as fast as it had come. Ken's red hands shook and though he was able to get himself upright, his legs felt like they'd collapse at any moment.
Space turbulence? No, that didn't make sense, and he knew it. While FTL-capable ships could leave a small wake of warped space, the way the Raven shook was akin to hitting an asteroid field. Ken furrowed his brow as he scrolled through each of the ship's systems and confirmed there was no damage to the hull. The cargo was still intact and the ship still read all three life signs for the trio on board.
"Ken buzzed the comm link. “Captain.”
"You okay up there?" a gritty voice asked.
"Hubs, you better get up here. I don't know how it was below, but the whole damn ship just shook like you wouldn't believe."
"Is Watts okay?" the captain asked.
Ken glanced at the system's readout. "Vitals are normal, but she hasn't keyed a message up here."
"I’ll grab her on my way up."
The link cut off, leaving Ken to
stare out the 180-degree viewport at the bridge's front. The black vacuum of space and speckled stars looked no different than all the runs he and Hubbard had made. Ken let out a long exhale before setting the climate back to 72 degrees. Hubbard wouldn't want to freeze his ass off.
The Raven was a tin can. The Augusta class ship was a medium sized vessel, long and round, shaped like a big straw. Sound bounced off the metal and reverberated throughout the length of the ship as Hubbard and Heidi Watts approached. Ken could hear their footsteps from thirty feet away. A moment later the seal on the door disengaged and it creaked open. Hubbard and Watts entered and the captain locked the door behind him.
Captain Bill Hubbard was slightly taller than Ken, clocking in at six foot, ten. His muscular build gave him the strength to accomplish most of the heavy lifting around the ship solo, yet without slowing him down, thanks to a rigorous daily workout. It was all muscle thanks to a workout set in his quarters below. His beard had grown to a near bushy state since they undocked at Bridger. The Raven was well stocked with grooming supplies, but Hubbard liked to mark the time with his whiskers. He'd shave the moment they unloaded the coils at Cogan, looking professional once again so he could lock in the next job.
"Status, Mr. Mallory."
Ken lifted an eyebrow. Hubbard was rarely this formal. "Ship-wide system's almost done scanning, but she's coming back all green so far."
"Good. You know you forgot to announce 'Captain on the bridge' when I entered. You also didn't stand at attention."
Ken nearly roared in laughter, but Hubbard's stare was deadly.
Protocol? We haven't done that crap in years.
He tried to read the captain’s face. Hubbard didn't move and the air grew thicker by the second.
"Um, Captain on the bridge?" Ken made his body rigid and threw a half-hearted salute.
Hubbard's face remained stone, and he leaned closer toward Ken's face.
His words were barely audible. "Never... bet me that I can't get him to do something, Watts." Hubbard's authority dissolved, and his laugh bounced around the bridge.
Watts threw her hands in the air. "Fine, fine. It's only ten qit off my share of the cargo. I can't believe you fell for that, Ken! C'mon, I thought you were better than that."
Ken rolled his eyes. "Well, now that I'm no longer the mark for your wager, can we get down to business? I mean, it is your ship after all, Hubs."
Hubbard walked up to the console and Ken moved to make the chair available for its rightful owner. He watched the captain scroll through the same data he scoured through minutes earlier.
"That was some intense turbulence," Watts said. "I've only been sailing for a few years
and I've never felt anything like that before."
"Neither have I," Ken said. "The sensors alerted me to an issue a few seconds before it hit, but nothing's out there." He pointed to the glass.
Watts’s frown deepened with each new screen she read through. She glanced out at the viewport, sighed, and then focused back to the data. Ken knew she'd hit the same dead end as him. Watching her work through it though made him smile. Heidi reminded him of his sister Lindsey the moment he first saw her. Only a year older, Watts
mirrored her fascination for space. Their identical ship-standard cuts of brown hair lent an air of familiarity to Ken's otherwise lonely time away from his family. Ken hoped to bring Watts along to dinner the next time they were docked near Lindsey's ship.
Hubbard looked up from the display. "Raven's clean. No bumps or bruises. It had to have been an FTL wake."
Ken waved the notion aside. "No way. Even an Albany class ship couldn't create that."
"It could if they jumped just before we passed through."
"He's right, Captain," Watts said. "I served a stint at FMS 22 a while back. Even with a line of ships waiting to jump, we never saw a wake generate as much force as what hit the Raven."
Ken had served on ships abiding by the shipping lane rules. The wait was long due to the set locations a ship could make an FTL jump. Passing through an FTL monitoring station brought the unique advantage to take on extra cargo people didn't want to pass through planetary customs. Because of the Raven's small size and lack of FTL drive, it was exempt from lane requirements and delivered cargo faster, meaning more money.
"Well, if anyone has another explanation, I'm all ears," Hubbard said.
Ken looked back out into the darkness, grasping for a logical theory. He was no engineer, so he only had his experience to go on, but experience couldn’t answer this. He saw Hubbard rubbing his whiskered chin deep in thought and turned back to the viewport for answers.
Watts cried out, breaking his concentration. Both he and Hubbard spun in time to see her unconscious body crumple to the deck, blood pooling around her head.
Ken ran the best he could, feet clanging against the metal grating of the Raven’s deck, holding Watts tightly over his shoulder. Hubbard led the way to the medical station, situated at the midpoint of the Raven's 100-foot interior. Neither Hubbard or Ken said anything after Watts hit the floor. The impact had left a gash on her forehead where she had struck the jagged deck grating and a steady stream of blood ran down her face. Some unknown training from years long past had kicked in. Hubbard checked checked her pulse and Ken ran to initiate the autopilot so the ship would give audible alerts to any issues.
The entrance to the medical station was one deck below on the crew's quarters level. Hubbard pointed to a long table as bright lights switched on, blanketing the room in pure white. The captain ran his fingers across four rows of switches, flipping them up in unison. Every piece of equipment hummed to life. Hubbard started typing into the main interface terminal.
Ken hoisted Watts onto the milky white table. The surface lit up, illuminating an outline of her body in cool blue dots. He stood there not knowing what to do.
"C'mon, Watts. You need to pull through this," Ken whispered. He stroked her hair, moving it out of her face. She looked so much like Lindsey. It pushed him to protect her with equal ferocity. Her breathing was shallow, but she didn't look like she was in pain.
"What's going on, Hubs?" Ken called over his shoulder.
"R-Phys is still coming online."
"Still?" Ken asked. The remote physicians required for all smaller vessels were designed to be ready in under 10-seconds of startup. "We're running out of time with her."
Hubbard slammed his hand on the console. "The whole damn thing's stuck on its connection to the central medical database. We'll have to do this the old-fashioned way."
The captain slid under the console, pulling out a navy canvas medical bag. Ken let go of Watts’ hand, though he hadn't remembered taking it to begin with. He grabbed the bag and unclasped the fasteners while Hubbard pulled an overhead light toward them. He grabbed a couple of handheld scanners out and placed them on the table.